On this Friday morning in Boston, the first day of Spring, Virginia bounded into the office and started speaking quickly as she began unbundling from her layers. L.L. Bean boots and a side braid, sweet Virginia couldn’t get her hat and scarf off fast enough, “Too much, Lei, we gotta scale back. It’s too much.”
Scale back what?
“The content, the quality, the social media videos, the photos of our kids in their new suits and new dresses. The book club. It’s too much. They think we have it figured out and nobody knows how much we need them.”
How do you convey a sense of urgency without risking credibility or cheapening very real, and often private, issues of human suffering?
Last week I invited myself to Northeastern University to meet with a Kenyan infectious disease doctor. I suspected he would have access to real Kenyan chai (he did, in a thermos, on his desk). Our visit turned into three hours and 99 cups of tea. At one point he told me that it costs 24 dollars to test one person for HIV in a Kenyan clinic. “Can’t be.” I declared, “That’s way too high, I know those tests, they’re cheap. It costs about 4 bucks.”
I waited for a response, pleased that I had a chance to show-off my local knowledge about services in rural Kenya.
Dr. Wamai was amused but not offended. "You see Nyawira," he said - calling me by my Kikuyu name - "when you sell a cup of chai, you can’t just count the cost of the tea leaves. Someone has to pick that tea, process it, buy the cup, milk the cow, boil the water, serve the tea. You are talking about the cost of the tea leaves. I am talking about a cup of chai."
Well, at least he knows I have a Kenyan name, so, there’s that….
I need to tell you about my cup of chai this week. I am particularly proud to work with three women who make magic happen: Wambui, Pip and Phoebe. Here’s what they made happen on Tuesday.
They managed to get a 12-year-old to stand up in a court room and tell a room full of strangers how her rights were violated. In very very specific details, she stood - literally - across from her rapist, and told a judge, in perfect strength, what happened.
A police officer once described rape proceedings like this to me - “Tell me about your last sexual encounter.” “WHAT?!” I burst out laughing. “That’s right,” he said, “and now imagine telling me, and 30 other people, while someone takes notes. And now imagine it was a very traumatic encounter, the most painful, shameful encounter that shattered your sense of being in this world.”
Yikes, my heart has been scared for this little girl all month. There was a lot at stake, she had to get it right, she couldn’t crumble and put her head down, the way I’ve seen her do in the past. “You can’t forget to say this part,” our social worker told her in the car. “I know it’s really hard, but its important that everyone knows that part, that exact part, ok? Will you remember?”
Which brings me back to my cup of chai. Here is what it takes to lead up to a moment where a painfully shy, brutalized, previously-homeless and deeply abused little girl can stand up and tell her story:
1 Psychologist (on-going)
1 Full-time, live in social worker
1 Country director
4 House mothers
56 New friends and classmates
A new dress and new PJs donated by our friend Laurel and her family
55 Showings of High School Musical
The generator to keep the electricity on
A friendship bracelet sent from our Board member J.C.
A driver to take us to court
Fuel to fuel the car that took us to court
A lawyer to help us figure out what is actually going on
Lots of other things I don't want to bore you with
And so you see, our tea is not cheap. It's Starbucks. We need our investors, we can’t do it alone.
How else can I convey that? What am I going to do - post that on Faceboook “oh here’s so-and-so, look at that beautiful smile, who would ever think that..…”
No, we can’t. We won’t.
So believe me when I say, I know our photos are awesome, our updated website rocks and our videos make you want to dance. But the real stuff happens outside of that. It happens outside of our social media strategy, this MAC laptop I am typing on, the cocktail party tonight. It happens every day. It's happening now. It has to happen tomorrow.
Which was a long way of saying: we don’t have it together, but we are trying, and we need your solidarity.
Please sponsor a child. And all the ingredients.